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Air Force ROTC cadet pursues dream career as pilot, uses height waiver process

Members from 19th Air Force, surgeon general’s office and 99th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot conduct a cockpit assessment on a pilot candidate from a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps detachment who does not meet minimum height standards to be an Air Force pilot.  Once a candidate is selected for a pilot slot, they will have their Initial Flying Class I physical exam, which automatically places a candidate into the waiver process, if they do not meet height standards.

Mary Tighe, a pilot candidate and member of Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 280 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., participates in a cockpit assessment Nov. 15, 2019. Tighe does not meet minimum height standards to be an Air Force pilot but has requested a height waiver. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jennifer Gonzalez)


Ever since Mary Tighe, a 21-year-old from New York, was a child, she dreamed of following in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become an Air Force pilot.

Even though women have been Air Force pilots since the 1970s, Tighe’s 5 feet, 1 inch stature could have stood in her way. Tighe, however, never thought of the 5-feet-4-inch height standard as an eliminating factor, merely an obstacle.

"If you are really dedicated, you will go out and do it, no matter what stands in your way,” Tighe said. “Don’t let the first person who tells you ‘no you can’t do it’ stop you. I’ve had multiple people tell me no.”

Tighe is scheduled to graduate from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, in the spring of 2020 and is a member of Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 280 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Her dream career was to become a search and rescue pilot, but it came as no surprise to Tighe when she tracked instead to become a remotely piloted aircraft pilot.

“Due to my height, I knew I would track for either RPA or air battle manager. I also knew that there is a waiver for everything in the Air Force and if I continued to work hard I still might qualify,” Tighe said.

During her initial flying class I physical exam over the summer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Tighe knew to immediately ask for a height waiver.

Unlike manned pilots, there is no height requirement to be an RPA pilot. Candidates who are selected to become manned pilots and do not meet anthropometric standards during their class I physical are automatically placed into the waiver process.

Using software, Tighe’s height and anthropometric measurements were then matched with the requirements of operational and training airframes.

Tighe’s height safely matched a number of operational airframes, but didn’t align with the measurements needed to fly the T-1A Jayhawk, one of Air Education and Training Command’s trainer aircraft.

“Roughly two-thirds of student pilots will fly the T-1A,” said Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander. “While the T-1A is a very successful trainer, it unfortunately is one of the most restrictive aircraft we have from an anthropometric perspective. We’re absolutely committed to ensuring we’ve given each candidate a thorough look, so if the T-1A is the issue, we bring applicants to (Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph) and assess them in the actual cockpit.”

The T-1A cockpit assessments are accomplished with a pilot candidate and a three-person team that includes representatives from the AETC surgeon general’s office, 19th Air Force and an instructor pilot. Tighe traveled to JB San Antonio-Randolph for her cockpit assessment Nov. 15.

“It is cool being in the T-1A cockpit and thinking that this could be what I would be doing in the future,” Tighe said after the assessment.

During the assessment, the team evaluates the candidate in the cockpit to ensure adequate sight lines and safe operation of all flight controls. If needed, a T-1A-specific seat cushion is used to assist candidates with line of sight issues.

“We have a robust system in place to determine whether applicants of all sizes can safely operate our assigned aircraft,” Wills said. “We don’t want to turn an otherwise qualified candidate away until we’ve exhausted all reasonable options. Ultimately though, the safety of our Airmen is paramount.”

Despite being three inches from the standard height requirement, Tighe’s cockpit assessment showed she could safely operate the T-1A.

“Even if I don’t get my dream job, I will still be able to fly and in the end that is all that matters,” Tighe said.

Tighe’s waiver will be approved by the 19th Air Force commander.


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